Friday, March 09, 2012

My dad

It's been more than two months since my dad died on January 5, and I'm just now getting around to editing and publishing this post I started on January 7. Of course, I've had a baby since then (more on that later), so I've been understandably busy. But I figured it was about time to get this posted.

My dad was diagnosed with lymphoma a couple of years ago. He fought it into remission, but it returned with a vengeance over a year ago. This past fall he just kept getting more and more sick, and so I went to visit him the weekend before Thanksgiving. A few days later I had the idea to make him a quilt, similar to the one I made for Aaron last year. I contacted Karen, my dad's significant other, to see if she could get me some of Daddy's old shirts, so she sent some back with my sister Jennie as she drove through Waco after Thanksgiving. I finished the quilt so that Jennie could take it with her as she went back to Tyler for Christmas. Best of all, my dad absolutely loved it. He called me Christmas morning after he opened it. I wasn't sure if Karen had shared the plan with him or not, but he was completely surprised. "Amy, you rascal!" were the first words he said to me as I answered the phone. Then he went on and on about how much he loved the quilt, how great it was, how beautiful, and how loved he felt. It ended up being a fantastic present for the man I've always had difficulty finding presents for. But his reaction was a wonderful present for me, too, especially in light of what the next couple of weeks would hold.

The day after Christmas my dad went into the hospital for what they initially thought was pneumonia. But what looked like pneumonia was actually the tumors invading his lungs. They grew very quickly, and so my dad was rapidly losing lung function. When the doctors informed him of this on Tuesday morning, January 3, and told him that even if he wanted to continue with chemo or radiation he would not survive it, he decided that he wanted to be moved to a hospice facility. He had sores in his mouth and throat, and talking, swallowing, and coughing were painful. He was also having a very hard time breathing, so his two requests were that he would be able to breathe as well as possible for as long as possible and that he would not be in pain. The hospice facility was able to honor those two requests.

My sister called me around lunch time that Tuesday to tell me I needed to go ahead and go to Tyler because they were going to transfer my dad to hospice. He was still at the hospital when I arrived late Tuesday afternoon, and he woke up, recognized me, and talked to me. I don't remember much of what he said, except that he suggested I stretch out, I guess given the fact that I was 9 1/2 months pregnant and had just driven a couple of hours. I was with him, Karen, and Jennie that afternoon and evening as he slept off and on. He would wake up and talk to us every once in a while, but when he was sleeping he was having very vivid dreams. He would move his arms around and sometimes talk in his sleep. Watching him do this was kind of interesting, and I wondered what he was dreaming about. Karen told me that once when she asked him, he had been dreaming about throwing a tomahawk.

It was right around 8:00 pm when the paramedics came to move him to the hospice facility. Jennie and I sat with Karen and one of her friends as she filled out the admitting paperwork, and the lady explained what we already knew--this facility was a short term place, only 2 or 3 weeks at the very most. At this point we had not received any official word on How Long He Had Left.

Hospice actually provided a handmade quilt for my dad (that I thought was much more lovely than what I had made), but Karen had brought the Christmas quilt and so we covered him with that instead. My aunt and uncle (my dad's brother) arrived in town that night, and my uncle came up to hospice around 9:00 or so just as Jennie, Karen, and I were leaving. Before I left, my dad and I talked a little, but talking would cause him to cough, which caused him pain and made it harder for him to breathe. I told him he didn't need to talk, and he held my hand for several moments. When he was healthier and he was giving me a long hug--usually as we were saying goodbye--he would make a slight "Mm" sound. I always took it to mean that he was appreciating the moment, consciously acknowledging that time together. He made that sound during our last hug when I visited him at Thanksgiving. And that night in hospice, as he was holding my hand, he made that sound again--conscious acknowledgment of time together.

When I returned Wednesday morning, my dad was much less responsive. If I had waited until then to go to Tyler, I don't think he would have known me. That morning the doctor also observed that my dad had declined overnight, and he told us he thought we had 36 hours at the most.

My two other sisters, Brandee and Rene', and their husbands arrived from out of state on Wednesday morning, and Aaron and the kids and my cousin Brooke arrived later in the day. Aaron and I decided not to bring the kids to see my dad. He looked and sounded very, very sick at that time, and for many reasons we didn't feel it was appropriate. So they stayed at Aaron's mom's house. During the day on Wednesday it was very good to be together as a family (Karen and one of her daughters were also there), and we sat around telling stories, laughing, and remembering, just being together and being with my dad.

But it got harder and harder to watch my dad. He was asleep most of the day (because of the pain meds), but as his body was receiving less and less oxygen, his limbs twitched and jerked. His brow was furrowed a lot, and he moaned occasionally. It was a very emotional time. My dad has been so strong my whole life, and now he was in such distress. By early evening he was on a slightly different combination of meds, and he became much more peaceful.

Jennie, Karen, and her daughter decided to stay overnight on Wednesday and we asked them to call if anything changed. Jennie called around 6:00 on Thursday morning and told us we needed to go ahead and come back up there (I believe the nurses had told her to alert anyone who wanted to know when the end was near), so Aaron and I went back to hospice. They had removed my dad's nasal cannula at that time and his breathing was much more labored. Over the next couple of hours it got even worse, and he began moaning a bit with every breath. This really bothered me because it seemed he was hurting with every breath. But Aaron--who has studied this sort of thing and seen people die--explained that at this point it was all involuntary, just his body's reaction to everything that was happening, the winding down of the mechanism. I was reassured but also sad.

A short side note: words don't often fail me. It's a rare occasion when I am actually speechless. But I've found in writing this post that words simply cannot do this experience justice. I can't explain the breadth, depth, and nuance of feelings that came from watching my dad as he was so sick, and from watching him die. Words like "sad" and "bothered me" are almost silly, but they're all I have. *End side note*

I was sitting on my dad's left side with my hand lightly on his shoulder. He was working so hard to breathe that his shoulder moved up and down a lot, so I didn't want the weight of my hand to make breathing more difficult. At the same time, I needed to touch him, and his shoulder seemed the best place. His face was turned slightly away from me. Right before 8:00 am, his loud breathing and slight moaning suddenly stopped. He got very quiet, his eyes opened, his breaths became very shallow and far apart, and the color began to drain from his face. There's a medical term for this, Aaron told me later, but I don't think any of us needed to be told that this was the end. This was when I started to cry. The family gathered around him, many of us touching him, as he breathed his final breath right at 8:00 Thursday morning. The nurse came in very shortly after to check his heartbeat and confirmed that he was gone. The hospice staff assured us that we could be with him as long as we needed, and so we just sat, holding his hand, patting his leg, saying our goodbyes.

After they cleaned up his body, we walked into the room one final time. He was so still and pale. He was just . . . gone. As Aaron and I were preparing to leave, we began to fold up the Christmas quilt to take it home, and I broke down again. I felt horrible. I had just made him this present that he loved so much, and now I was taking it away from him! I'm very glad I have it, and I know he couldn't take it with him, but I felt just awful about taking his quilt. I still feel a little guilty about it, even though I know that feeling is, on the surface, irrational. I also cried quite a bit when it came time to wash the quilt, because it still smelled like him. But it needed to be washed, just as it needed to be taken back, and I have enjoyed using the quilt over the past couple of months.

We drove back to my mother-in-law's house and sat the kids down to tell them. They cried some, and we talked about the things they remembered about Grandaddy. They remembered the tall slide at his house, and playing with the dogs, grilling hamburgers and making peach ice cream (I had forgotten about the peach ice cream, which my dad loved). They remembered playing on the porch and playing with Barbie stuff, and we told the girls about picking berries when they were younger. Since then Chloe has also remembered using the nutcracker to  crack nuts from the large bowl of mixed nuts that sat on the coffee table.

The sadness comes in waves, and often at inopportune times. For a while it came when I was driving to work, or when I was actually at work. I had to push it back at those times and wait until I got home. And then when the feelings did resurface at home, I had to make myself face them. It would be easier to just continue to push them away--especially because I was tired and very pregnant. But I know it is good to grieve for my dad. It is okay to be sad and to cry; that's exactly what we told the kids when we broke the news to them. I look at pictures on the Facebook page, and some of them make me smile, and some of them make me cry, and some of them cause complicated emotions.

Because this death is very emotionally complicated. My dad and I didn't have a great relationship--at least not over the past couple of decades. I was a Daddy's girl right up until he left when I was 13, but after that we just didn't see or talk to each other all that much. I was looking for pictures of the two of us to post on the Facebook page. I was specifically looking for high school pics, and I realized that in my picture album there are several pictures of me and Daryl, a guy friend of my family at the time, but there is only one picture of my dad and me. One. There are very few from any time after that.

There's a host of emotions that I have worked through in the past couple of decades--anger, hurt, betrayal, sadness, abandonment--and yet, he was still my dad. I have known that he was here, and now he's not here. Those negative feelings could still come into play. It's hard seeing and reading about his other life on the Facebook page, seeing his other family as they remember him. Their memories are often very different from mine--better than mine. It's hard seeing how he was present to this other family while knowing that he was not present for me. My kids--his grandkids--barely knew him. I have barely known him. And yet these other people knew him. I'm glad he had people, but my family and I weren't really his people. That's hard.

There were paper, pens, and markers in my dad's room those last days so that people could write down their memories. It took me a while to figure out what to say, because the first things that came to my mind were all the times that he wasn't there, all the things he didn't do. As I sat in hospice, I had to choose what to remember. I had to choose to remember some good things, and so I wrote:

I will remember:
Your dry sense of humor--although you also loved a good pun--and your wry smile
Your physical strength
Watcing you build things--a treehouse, the first shop for Apache, my loft bed
Watching you in your shop as you worked on small projects or cleaned fish
You teaching me how to drive, first an automatic, and then a few years later, a stick
Your calmness in situations where other people would not be calm
You singing along with Elvis songs
Your love of animals
Your hugs
That you called me Amykate

Being with him in his last couple of days helped me to recapture a bit of the feeling that he was MY dad. He's mine, dammit. And no one can take that away from me. I was with him, and he knew I loved him, and I knew he loved me. Because he did love me. That's something I was reminded of by that phone call on Christmas, and by our last conversations, and by that goodbye as he held my hand. My dad loved me. I have to make myself know that, remind myself of it. I have to repeat it. He was not good at showing it, and truth be told, I wasn't good at showing him, either.

Before my grandmother, my dad's mom, died, I visited her in the hospital. She said to me something along the lines of, "We both know we love each other, even if we haven't always been very good at showing it." How ironic that this seems to have been an issue passed from mother to son to daughter. Because my dad didn't have the best relationship with her, either. He certainly didn't see her or talk to her as often as his siblings did, just as I didn't see her, and just as he and I didn't see each other. But my dad was with her when she died. He felt the obligation and the need to be there with her because she was his mother. I remember my dad talking about it, how deeply convicted he was that he needed, and wanted, to take care of her in that time, to be with her.

And I was with him when he died. That was my time. It was my time to hold his hand, to pat his leg, to smooth his hair. It was my job to be with him, and my privilege. A friend of mine said it very well in a recent email. He lost his father a year ago, and said that he was "honored to witness one of the most magical and mysterious things in life, which is death."

And so I feel so many things right now. There's a bit of renewed grieving over whatever our relationship was. There's a sifting through of things I haven't had to deal with in years. Then there's the remembrance of his last days, which were sad and hard and good. (How do you describe someone's last days as good? And yet, it was just really good for me to be with him, and I'm so very grateful for that time.) And of course there is fresh grief with each new realization that he's gone.

So amidst all the complicated emotions, I choose once more what to remember. He loved me. I loved him. He was my dad.


felicity said...

Well done, Amy. What a circle of life you've experienced in the last few months. All the best to you in these days.

Angela said...

Really lovely, Amy. I remember the peach ice cream and if course that amazing loft bed. I'm so glad that your finding peace with the relationship in your own way and in your own time.

Angela said...

You're finding...

Jennie Quillen said...

Oh my beloved sister, as I read this and have tears streaming down my cheeks, my heart connects with yours as I understand and 'get' those complicated emotions and the depth of those feelings. Thank you for writing this and having the courage to bare your heart. I'm so grateful that we not only had that time with dad but also that as sisters we were able to have that time with our father who loved his girls, AmyKate and little-bit.

Christa Noelle said...

Amy ... I just wanted to say thank you for posting ... it gave me the inspiration and the courage to post something similar ... I have fond memories of your dad and do I ever remember that tree house!! I am glad you had that time with him ... as I am extremely grateful to have had time with my dad too ... I know both of our dad's were incredibly proud of the women we became!